General Manager Bob Clarke has built the ultimate late 1990s luxury model: big, tough and sleek. So why is his 4x4 equipped with what amounts to vinyl upholstery when it comes to goaltending?
Philadelphia squandered its Stanley Cup chance last spring by entrusting the netminding to the aggressive but cross-your-fingers duo of Ron Hextall and Garth Snow. Clarke didn't think he could significantly upgrade the Flyers' talent in goal at last March's trading deadline without ripping apart the team, a conservative stance that he will have to rethink after watching the Red Wings put some long-distance shots past the erratic Hextall and Snow in the finals sweep. If Philly is to win the hardware in 1998, it needs dependable goaltending. Maybe Clarke will land Curtis Joseph, whom the Oilers might deal because he is eligible to be an unrestricted free agent next summer. Perhaps Clarke will settle for the Hurricanes' Sean Burke, who is also a potential unrestricted free agent. But by taking his sweet time to find a deal that won't cost him a big talent, like second-year defenseman Janne Niinimaa, Clarke leaves a cloud hanging over an otherwise sunny situation.
Clarke did make improvements in other areas after the embarrassing loss to Detroit, starting with a new coach. Wayne Cashman is a former Bruins star and a 10-year NHL assistant who deserved a top job years ago. He has a better sense of how to work the dressing room than his predecessor, Terry Murray. Murray was a superb tactician who in three seasons brought discipline and defense to a drifting team, but he struck his players as aloof and autocratic, and he will be remembered for playing goalie roulette in the playoffs. Long before his infamous "choking" remark on the eve of Game 4 against Detroit, Murray had lost his players—including star center Eric Lindros. Cashman won't let that happen.
"I see overconfidence as our biggest challenge," the 52-year-old Cashman says. "Everybody we play is going to measure themselves against us." To measure yourself against the Flyers, bring a Paul Bunyan life-sized cutout. Philadelphia was the largest team in NHL history last season, averaging 6'2" and 207 pounds, and hasn't shrunk. Cashman wants the Flyers to take better advantage of the tale of the tape by forechecking more intensely and by playing with more conviction in front of Hextall, Snow or whoever ends up tending the goal. The Red Wings frolicked in the slot against Philadelphia in June, but the signing of 6'4", 210-pound free-agent defenseman Luke Richardson, who can Zamboni forwards in front of the net, brings added toughness to the back line. Maybe some of his nasty attitude will rub off on 6'4", 230-pounder Chris Therien, who began playing up to his size late last season when Murray's constant harangues finally registered. Philadelphia doesn't have as good a group of defensemen as does Washington or New Jersey, but the gap is marginal and will shrink even more as the 22-year-old Niinimaa matures. Shockingly, he wasn't one of the three finalists for Rookie of the Year. In three years, tops, he will be vying for the Norris Trophy.
The most significant newcomer is forward Chris Gratton, who was obtained from the Lightning for skilled but oft-injured right wing Mikael Renberg and defenseman Karl Dykhuis, two players Clarke had been trying to deal for a year. The Legion of Doom line—Lindros, Renberg and John LeClair—is history, but the Flyers' reshaped No. 1 line will be bigger and maybe even better. Philadelphia is loaded in the middle with underrated Rod Brind'Amour, promising rookie Vaclav Prospal and defensive specialist Joel Otto, so Gratton, a natural center who, aside from the Coyotes' Keith Tkachuk, was the NHL's only 30-goal, 200-penalty-minute player last season, might see some Doom time on a wing. The Flyers can also go with 19-year-old Dainus Zubrus, who filled in superbly for Renberg.
Of course, Cashman could use a stick boy with LeClair and Lindros and still count on 100 goals from that line. LeClair, who had 50 goals last year after scoring 51 the season before, hasn't needed Lindros's occasional injury-related absences from the lineup to reinforce his value. Still, the Flyers are Lindros's team. Ultimately a player of his stature will be judged not by his statistics but by how many championships he wins—in five seasons Lindros has come up empty.
Now he enters the final season of his original six-year, $22 million contract, and as of Monday no new deal had been struck, though negotiations were in full swing. Philadelphia says its five-year offer would make Lindros the game's highest-paid player—Colorado's Joe Sakic is tops with a $7 million average salary—but Lindros is reportedly looking to raise the bar to about $10 million per annum. Lindros will become a restricted free agent next summer, which would leave the Flyers vulnerable to a predatory offer from a rich rival such as the Rangers.
The Lindros contract could be one of the subtexts of the season, a diversion for a dominant team that should have no difficulty battling the boredom on the interminable road to the playoffs. The only variables the Flyers can't control are injuries and the side effects of the Olympic experience—they could send as many as 10 players to Nagano. The variable they can control is goaltending, which will gnaw at them until Clarke makes his move.